Visual Rhetoric/Semiotics of Fashion

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Introduction[edit]

Explaining Fashion Through Semiotics[edit]

Semiotics assumes that visual images and their respective signs can be read similar to a text. Fashion and body adornment not only have a language of their own, but can be read as an explanation and text of one’s personality and character. Cultural semiotics is an important part of visual rhetoric because it allows us to take simple signs and codes and turn them into an actual conversation. Often studying visual rhetoric includes studying compositions, art, advertisement, film, and many other objects created. Not only can the things created around us be analyzed in regards to their visual rhetoric, but the things in themselves, and the way they are presented can also present a coded and signified message. Each person has a unique personality, set of beliefs, opinions, and in order to convey that identity we use our body as a canvas to project that identity.

Elizabeth Wilson States: "In all societies the body is 'dressed' and everywhere dress and adornment play symbolic, communicative and aesthetic roles. Dress is always 'unspeakably meaningful.' The earliest forms of 'clothing' seem to have been adornments such as body painting, ornaments, scarifications (scarring), tattooing, masks and often constricting neck and waist bands. Many of these deformed, reformed or otherwise modified the body" (Rampley 68).

The rhetoric of a person, and their appearance, can include many factors. One can represent themselves with their clothes in many ways, with jewelry, adorning themselves with symbols, hairstyles as well as many other rhetorical items. Although many individuals may debate as to whether these past cultural trends can be included as clothing/dress, for the sake of our argument all of these things call into the visual rhetoric of the body and the way a culture or individuals choose to represent themselves. This act of representing, and presenting ones rhetoric through clothes, or other body adornment, Rampley calls self-fashioning; which he believes can articulate subtle and important characteristics of individuals including personality, mood, and even emotions (71).

Codes[edit]

Not only can particular styles of clothes define a person as an individual, but also as a part of a group. According to Pauline Thomas, “Fashion is a language of signs, symbols and iconography that non-verbally communicate meanings about individuals and groups.” Depending on the context clothes and other defining objects can mean very different things, but we plan on showing examples within our culture that effectively communicate a specific notion of identity through specific rhetorical cues. Fred Davis discusses the way that clothes and fashion can represent identity through the semiotic notion of code.

"The chief difficulty of understanding fashion in its apparent vagaries is the lack of exact knowledge of the unconscious symbolisms attaching to forms, colors, textures, postures, and other expressive elements of a given cultures. The difficulty is appreciably increased by the fact that some of the expressive elements tend to have quite different symbolic references in different areas. Gothic type, for instance, is a nationalistic token in Germany while in Anglo-Saxon culture, the practically identical type known as Old English...signifies a wistful look backward at madrigals and pewter" (Davis 50). Although you can give meaning to semiotics signs can change and this applies to trends as well. Fashion design and symbolic adornments can have very definitive symbols, but depending on the time and place those symbols can be constantly shifting and changing. Even though they may change they are still held to their symbolic meaning by the collective culture.

In our chapter we include many different genres in which this rhetoric can be displayed, but we also put a large emphasis on the particular clothes people wear and what they can mean. We do put a large focus on the rhetoric of clothing intentionally because as a largely consumer-based culture, we as a society in general put a lot of value on our appearance and represent our identities largely in our consumption of goods, especially clothing.

Why We Wear Clothes[edit]

What is the function of dress in society? Overall, human beings in most cultures wear clothes for one or more of the following reasons, comfort and protection, modesty and cultural and personal display.

Clothing for Protection[edit]

Considering early human beings, we know that clothing was used as a way to keep warm, to protect the skin and as a mean to comfort the body. As people roamed from region to region, the body continued to prove inadequate for certain environments, thus the need for protective clothing. Even today, we understand that when the weather turns cooler adding layers will keep the body warm. Removing layers keep the body cooler in the summer time, and wearing various other garments protect our body from almost all the natural elements. However, clothing has become much more than a way to protect the body, the fact that we do indulge in clothing beyond mere comfort suggests yet function-- modesty.

Modesty[edit]

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, modesty is a “Reserve or propriety in speech, dress, or behavior.” Many cultures have deemed it necessary to practice a certain amount of modesty in dress by covering up certain body parts. A familiar story in the Christian bible talks about the characters of Adam and Eve wandering through the Garden of Eden completely naked and oblivious prior to gaining knowledge and knowing shame. In most cultures, individuals are expected to keep certain aspects of their body covered up. In certain Eastern cultures, women are supposed to remain in purdha (seclusion) to avoid being seen by men and or even other women outside of the family. To be exposed would constitute a lack of propriety and cause a certain degree of dishonor to the family. While western practices vary in their interpretation of modesty, the same idea goes as why mothers and fathers may feel uncomfortable with their thirteen-year-old daughter leaving the house in a tube top and a mini skirt.

Personal and Cultural Display[edit]

Lastly, and arguably, most importantly, clothing is a way of presenting one’s personal and cultural values; alternatively demonstrating one’s style, or lack thereof. Clothing has become a symbol of an individual’s identity. Society acknowledges and accepts certain forms of dress and attributes them to the characteristics of the individual. For instance, a doctor may wear a clean white lab coat in order to appear sterile and present a professional image to his or her patients. While wearing a white coat makes signs of insanitation obvious, the white coat has come to be more of a cultural badge than anything else is. However, these markers, or familiar icons in dress are not limited to this single white coat. In western society, police officers wear variations of blue uniforms, Basketball players wear sleeveless jerseys and nuns wear black and white dresses that cover their heads. These stereotypes have become useful in our everyday lives as they help simplify things and people into categories. These distinctions are what enable the individuals in the cases listed above to choose their own way of communicating nonverbally to the world.

Clothing as a Form of Non-Verbal Communication[edit]

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months. -Oscar Wilde

Making a Statement...(whether you realize it or not)[edit]

At this point one should understand that non-verbal communication is unavoidable. Regardless of whether or not the message is intentional, we continue to communicate with each other long after our mouths close. “It is impossible to wear clothes without transmitting social signals,” claims human behaviorist Desmond Morris (213). Even choosing not to wear clothes sends a message. The decision each individual makes about his or her appearance sends the viewer a message. This includes people who claim they pay no attention to their clothing with regard to its communicative value.


A guy with long hair and a full beard who insists that he will not shave for anyone may be quick to change his decision if her were to be brought to trial for possession of marijuana. When going into a job interview a candidate may opt for a suit and tie instead of sweatpants and flip-flops. As the weather warms shops fill with pastels and brightly colored clothes. In order to avoid trends, a young woman chooses not to conform by donning jeans and a t-shirt. These situations are examples of how we use clothing to communicate. On a cultural level, the man with the beard understands that maintaining certain hairstyles sends out a certain message through non-verbal communication. Not wanting to be misunderstood or perhaps to send out a different nonverbal message, the importance of nonverbal communication is something acknowledged by all. Not only are these examples of trends, or avoiding trends, they convey a message depending on the culturally accepted codes that they apply to among within our culture.

The Language of Jeans[edit]

In the past decade, the price of jeans has skyrocketed, especially among the designer labels such as Seven for All Mankind, Citizens for Humanity, and Diesel, among others. These designer brands have become a mark of status that indicates a sort of identity of the person wearing them. Designer jeans carry an insignia on the back pockets that identify the designer brand and how much money the wearer spent, which communicate information about the person wearing the jeans through understood symbols of our culture. Throughout their history, jeans have represented a casual lifestyle. They have humble origins from the beginning when Levi Strauss designed denim pants that were immediately associated with manual labor. Jeans were and are often still worn by manual laborers, which give them a sense of informality and a laid back attitude. But in fact, recent years have proven that celebrities and even college students are willing to pay lots of money for these “casual” jeans that are a sign of high-fashion and class. Wearers of designer jeans are, in fact, paying for the laid-back vibe that jeans give off. While the wearer attempts to appear laid-back and casual, the stitching on the back pocket communicates symbolic information about the person, and the message is clear: "The wearer is someone with disposable capital, who cares about her image, and who knows that other women will be surreptitiously checking out her butt" (Thomas).

Elaborating on the Fashion 'Conversation'[edit]

Symbolic Grammar of Fashion[edit]

There exists a “grammar of fashion.” The larger the “vocabulary,” or someone’s closet, the more creative and expressive those wearers can be, which enables them to create more “sentences." As a result, wearers are able to portray information about themselves effectively, more effectively, perhaps, than someone who doesn’t have those same means.

The traditional definition of rhetoric holds that it operates to influence behavior and change attitudes. Fashion, as a form of rhetoric, has the same capacity. Style is included as one of Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric. While the traditional meaning of “style” as a canon of rhetoric includes the way a person speaks or presents their language, the meaning of style in the rhetoric of fashion includes the way a person presents him or her self to the world through the clothing they wear (designer brands or not). Cicero had the idea that “the word choice of the speaker has a direct correlation between the audience’s perception of the speaker and his character.” In the rhetoric of fashion, however, “word choice” is shifted to mean clothing choice, designer choice, style choice, etc. While it is an undeniable fact that a person’s style and fashion choices portray a world of meaning about their personality and character, it is an unfortunate fact that many individuals in our society do not have the fiscal means necessary to “argue for themselves” in the same way that the elite do.

Not only do clothes represent, and express the style of a person, but so does body art in many different modes. Tattooing and body piercing has been practiced in almost every culture for thousands of years (Greif, Hewitt, Armstrong). The body modification movement did not begin in the Western culture. In fact, it can be argued that the kinds of changes one makes to her or his physical body plays a large part in the rhetoric an individual is trying to portray.

Body Piercing[edit]

Culturally, there are different reasons why a person would choose to pierce his body. Consistently throughout history, ear lobe piercing has been seen as a mark of feminine beauty(10). It was not until the 1970s, however, that men began to pierce their bodies as well, as a mark of their occupation or their sexual orientation. Today, Western cultures have seen the art of body piercing explode into the mainstream.

According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg in her book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, “body piercing, once regarded as characteristic of “primitive” people, has emerged in the 1990’s as the latest form of self-expression among American adolescents” (Brumberg 130). Instead of having only the option of piercing one’s ears, women (and men) today now can spend hours deciding which body part they would like pierced (eyebrow, lip, nipple, navel, etc) and which piece of jewelry they would like to wear (hoop or post). Brumberg argues that both the homosexual subculture as well as cultural icons like Madonna introduced piercing into the mainstream culture.

An Example of the Navel Piercing

In her book Sex, written in the 1980s, Madonna features photographs of both men and women pierced in multiple places on their bodies. She also showed off her navel ring in public, and stated that she adopted the look after she saw some members of her homosexual entourage wearing the same piercing. MTV showed teens wide varieties of piercing: they made popular bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana, as well as their piercings. The 1994 Paris runways showed supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington with pierced navels. Because of the overwhelming popularity of such stars in the 1980's and early 1990's, body piercing became the newest fad. But is it rhetorical?

Brumberg argues that “piercing proves, in a public way, that your body is your own” (134). She argues that piercing in the 1990s represented “provocative symbols of a powerful revolution in sexual mores and behavior” (132). Piercing one’s body signals one’s “personal politics” and it becomes a symbol of both “sexual liberation (because piercing symbolizes opposition to conventional sexual norms) and cultural relativism (because it evokes the primitive and the exotic)” (134). Piercing provides easy ways for young people to differentiate themselves from the mainstream adolescent culture, while still being a part of a mainstream subculture.

Tattoos[edit]

A Tattoo, like ear piercing, was only acceptable in the Western Culture among subculture groups like sailors, prisoners, bikers, and mobsters. Again, like piercing, the homosexual subculture began the tattoo movement to the mainstream.

According to "The Progression of the Tattoo," tattoos are now considered a "unique decoration" in the world of body art because they stay with the person forever. Many people find this idea appealing, and seek to tattoo on themselves an idea or message that will never leave them.

Some young adults view tattoos as a form of self expression

This idea also follows the idea that because body art is more popular in the mainstream culture of Generation X, it can be seen as a divergence from the culture of the previous generation. In this sense, tattooing, like body piercing, can be seen as liberation from the mainstream culture.

Tattoos can also be considered a sign of conformity. At the beginning of the recent tattooing revolution (about twenty years ago) getting a tattoo was a clear sign of deviation. Today, however, tattoos have made their way into the popular culture of the nation: advertisements even have begun to use tattoos in their marketing to appeal to a younger buying demographic. So while before, tattooing was really a sign of the "other," today, it can be argued that wearing a tattoo is only a more permanent way to conform (Kennedy).


Today, between 7 and 20 million American adults are reported to be tattooed (G,H,L). Out of 766 tattooed college students who participated in the survey conducted by Grief, Hewitt, and Armstrong, 53% of the students said that they got a tattoo for self-expression. 35% "just wanted one," 21% got tattooed to remember an event, 17% wanted to feel independent, and 11% wanted independence. The results of the study suggest that "as with all art forms, the purpose of tattoos seems to be to be means of communicating thoughts, ideas, and feelings" (G,H,L).

Associate Professor of Psychology Christina Frederick-Recascino whose research specializes in why college-aged people get tattoos argues that while the body art movement may seem like a fad or a craze, "the majority said they were not getting tattoos and pierces from peer pressure." She states that "they were choosing it as a way to reflect their identity." For many young adults who decide to permanently change their bodies, tattoos "reflects an aspect of who [they are], represents [their] inner personality, [their] interests, life goals, life philosophy" ("Tattoo. Pierce. How Come?"). In that sense, tattoos should be considered vastly rhetorical, because the person is making the decision to permanently inscribe their body with a personal message.

Tattoos and body piercing works alongside the brands and styles of clothes one chooses to wear to create a rhetorical statement about the kind of person one is. In that sense, if clothing makes up the "sentences" in the grammar of fashion, than surely it can be argued that tattoos and body piercing are the "punctuation" in those sentences.

Cultural Applications of Fashion Semiotics[edit]

“The whole world loves American movies, blue jeans, jazz and rock and roll. It is probably a better way to get to know our country than by what politicians or airline commercials represent.” —Billy Joel

“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, Waitin' for a train, When I was feelin' near as faded as my jeans” —Janis Joplin


One common definition of culture is described as the “values, norms, institutions and artifacts” that are “passed on from one generation to another by learning alone” (Hoult 93). Often the interrogation of cultural meaning leads to categorizing and dividing into subsystems such as “sociological” and “technological”. These subsystems address “people and their interactions with each other”, and “material objects and their uses”, respectively (Forsberg). But are there some cases where the social interactions are defined by the objects we use? What about the clothing we wear? When speaking of culture and our clothes—blue jeans in particular—no amount of dividing and categorizing can mitigate the deep and rich cultural milieu surrounding the ‘all American blue jean’. The sentiment often seen or heard in movies and books is the ‘favorite pair’ or ‘perfect pair’ of blue jeans. The symbolic significance of jeans is seen in the intense marketing efforts to. There are plenty of images associating a certain brand with the 'ideal'. But this is true for almost any consumer product in our society. So what makes blue jeans so different? Is it their long history? Or is it the constant accessibility to diverse tools of expression that jeans offer? Jeans can be powerful symbols bearing significant meaning; the cut, the brand and also the 'way' jeans are worn. Are they unkempt and worn out? Are they stained and soiled, bearing the oily signs of a gear-head or motorcycle fanatic? Or perhaps you own a bedazzler... enough said. The meaning-rich subtexts from advertising and pop culture offer a variety of identity 'markers' and identity 'tellers'. It's because the identity markers and tellers are widely accepted and understood that makes the symbolic meaning so effective.

How far can we go in discussing the symbolic power of blue jeans in our society? Can a pair of pants really define our values, or norms, play a role in our institutions or be labeled as artifacts? It is very clear that in America (and nearly everywhere else), denim jeans represent behemoths of symbolic culture. From the earliest account of canvas overalls in the mid-nineteenth century California Gold Rush to James Dean and Marlon Brando to the legendary '501 Blues' campaign in the '80's, jeans have been omnipresent in American cultural landscapes. The “501 Blues” campaign was arguably the one move that launched Levi’s to cultural icon status. Those images today are touted as blackmailing material for such 501-era actors as Bruce Willis who may guest-star on late night television; but in their day, those images really made an impression. There were few things I wanted more than button-fly 501 Levi's (zippers weren’t cool). My Mom tried to pass off ‘Lee’ jeans or ‘Wranglers’ as suitable substitutes but I wouldn’t have it. I had seen the commercials, I knew what was cool and what wasn’t. Plus, I had already endured years of persecution as a kid from having to wear a bullet-proof variety of pants known (appropriately) as ‘Tough Skins’. And to make matters worse, they were hand-me-downs (and olive-green).



Jackie Kennedy - A Symbol of Fashion[edit]

Jackie Kennedy is an important figure in discussing the rhetoric of fashion. As first lady, she was part of the elite, ruling class. As is normally the case with fashion trends, the ruling class establishes the fashion trends, and lower classes then attempt to emulate those styles. Those who imitated Jackie Kennedy's style did so not only because they liked her sense of style, but they also wanted to identify with those aspects of her life that her style brought with it: wealth, power, and social status. Celebrity figures such as Jackie Kennedy provide us with the most accessible vision of what it means to be wealthy. Their style and their fashion choices become culturally understood symbols that represent wealth and power.

Once the “refined taste” of the elite is adopted by lower classes, (for example: imitation Louis Vuitton handbags, fake Chanel sunglasses) the elite then shift gears and establish a new high-fashion trend that places them back at the top of the fashion pyramid. Many times, the trend among the elite is to wear clothing that appears “casual” and “low-maintenance,” (all while costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars) – but as soon as the actual casual and low maintenance wearers adopt those trends, the style changes (Remirez).

This cycle happens for two reasons. First, there is the need for union. Consumers, high and low classes alike, feel the need to belong to a larger society; they want to be seen as fashionable in the eyes of their audience who may be their peers, their coworkers, or family members. In order to appear fashionable, consumers wear those pieces of clothing that are socially constructed symbols of fashion. Second, there is the need for isolation. While style-setters and style-emulators both wish to belong to the larger society, there is also the need to be considered apart from the larger whole, to establish themselves as unique individuals with a distinctive taste (Remirez).

Not only do fashion choices and brand names act as symbols that communicate information about the social or economic status of a person, but they also have the capability to communicate an ideology about our society and the power that fashion has within it. An ideology is an accepted pattern or set of ideas, such as what is or is not considered fashionable in a particular culture. For our culture, the acceptable fashion trends are typically adopted from celebrities and the elite. An ideology is constructed and consumed through fashion, and this ideology about what is fashionable becomes hegemonic or dominant when it is viewed as the norm.

Although norms are established, there still exists the need for isolation and distinction. This need for individuality from the larger whole of society represents a certain characteristic within our society: we praise uniqueness and individuality; we look highly upon those individuals who have the independence to dress uniquely and who also have the fiscal means to do so.

The traditional definition of rhetoric holds that it operates to influence behavior and change attitudes. Fashion, as a form of rhetoric, has the same capacity.

Conclusion[edit]

The fashion of individuals, of a group, of a nation, reads much like a conversation; highlighting certain codes and symbols to represent sentences that are able to explain identity. A person can use their clothes and their overall fashion to represent power, status, differentiation, character, mood, apathy, or rebellion all in many different manifestations. Although a person can change the conversation of their clothes on a daily basis, the origin of what is said comes from the semiotics of the culture that person comes from. Just as semiotics can change with time, fashion and its meaning changes, at times it seems daily.

Sources[edit]

Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. Vintage Books: New York, 1997. 130-137.

Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. The University of Chicago Press: 1994. Pg. 5.

Greif, Judith, Walter Hewitt, and Myrna L. Armstrong. "Tattooing and Body Piercing: Body Art Practices Among College Students." Clinical Nursing Research, 1999. 15 Apr 2007.

Kennedy , Eric. "The Progression of the Tattoo." Trincoll Journal 1995 15 Apr 2007 <http://www.trincoll.edu/zines/tj/tj12.7.95/articles/tattoo.html>.

Malandro, Loretta A., Larry Barker, and Deborah A. Barker. Nonverbal Communication. 2nd ed. New York: Random House, 1989.

Morris, D. Manwatching: A field guide to human behavior. New York: Harry N. Abrams, pp. 213-217

Rampley, Matthew. Exploring Visual Culture: Definitions, concepts, contexts. Edinburgh University Press. 2005. Pp 67-84.

Remirez, Christine Marie. Fashion as Communication: Jacqueline Kenney's Rhetoric of Style.Diss: Florida Atlantic University, 1999. AAI1395512.

"Tattoo. Pierce. How Come?." The Body as Canvas. 2004. University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. 19 Apr 2007 <http://whyfiles.org/206tattoo/3.html>.

Thomas, Luisa. "The Secret Language of Jeans." Slate 10 Nov 2005 11 April 2007 <http://www.slate.com/id/2129956/>.

Joel, Billy. April 24, 2007 <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/jeans.html>

Joplin, Janis. April 24, 2007 <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/jeans.html>

Hoult, T. F, ed. 1969. Dictionary of Modern Sociology, p. 93. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture>

Forsberg, A. “Definitions of culture” <http://fog.ccsf.cc.ca.us/~aforsber/ccsf/culture_defined.html>